Focus, rigour and global range

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Practice makes perfect. Last year, the judges of the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs book award were feeling their way as they narrowed a list of 17 contenders down to a shortlist of six. This year, the process was quicker and the seven-strong panel – unchanged since the session last November that selected Thomas Friedman’s paean to globalisation, The World is Flat, as the inaugural winner of the £30,000 ($56,000) prize – came to it with a clearer sense of the kind of book that deserves to take the laurels next month.

There was also evidence of more rigour among publishers about the work that should be submitted for the accolade of “most compelling and enjoyable” business book of the year.

Lionel Barber, Financial Times editor, who chaired last week’s judging session at the FT’s headquarters, drew particular attention to the range of entries – everything from “the advantage of being small over big, the container revolution, the hedge fund industry, and the new economics of culture and commerce”.

Just short of 140 titles were put in for this year’s prize and later narrowed down to a confidential “long list” of 13 by FT staff. Plenty stood in the shadow of Friedman’s 2005 winner – many openly aspired to, or said they were inspired by, the success of The World is Flat. The list of entries again underlined the interest in the impact of the internet, the growth of China, the development of brands and the art of leadership. There was also evidence that the point of the prize was better understood this year: there were far fewer “how-to” manuals, which, though sometimes best-sellers of the genre, are mostly too ephemeral to make it to the shortlist, and more books aiming to become a durable addition to the library of great business works.

Two titles that quickly found their way on to this year’s shortlist were Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, looking at the economics of business in an internet age, and China Shakes the World, an examination of the influence of the Middle Kingdom, both as consumer and supplier, by James Kynge, a former FT correspondent in Beijing. They seemed to be the books with the broadest application for business.

Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, the communications services group, who had fought hard but unsuccessfully to get Ted Fishman’s book China Inc on the 2005 shortlist, was quick to champion the work at last week’s meeting, even though another judge worried that Kynge’s book was a case of “same stories, different villages”. As Sir Martin pointed out: “There are 1.5bn Chinese and you’re going to get a lot more stories like these.”

The apparent early lead of these two books does not necessarily make them favourites for the prize, however, as the judges tend to reserve detailed criticism of the shortlist for the final judging session, which this year takes place on October 26, just before the gala awards dinner. The brief discussion of The Long Tail at last week’s session suggests that one of the questions at that meeting will be whether Anderson’s theme, first outlined in an article in Wired magazine, which he edits, holds up for 200 or more pages.

There was more intense debate about the other books. In particular, the judges wanted to tease out whether some quite detailed books on specific issues also offered general lessons for business. Jeffrey Garten, professor at Yale School of Management, asked whether Bo Burlingham’s compendium of tales from small-scale US companies, Small Giants, while well-researched, was sufficiently global to join the shortlist.

Other judges argued that while the examples were American, their application was universal.

“There are a lot of good lessons there,” said Narayana Murthy, non-executive chairman of Infosys Technologies, the Indian technology services group. “All organisations have to go through this. The target is to
retain the nimbleness, comradeship and soul of a small organisation in a large one.”

A similar concern applied to The Wal-Mart Effect, one of several recent books on the rise of the US retailer. Some judges felt Charles Fishman’s research on the US end of the business was stronger than his work on the group’s influence beyond America’s borders. “When he talked about Chilean fish farms or Chinese factories, it was refracted through the US,” said one. But another called the book “an incredible story about the Wal-Mart culture and how you get in a generation from nothing to one of the largest companies in the world”.

Judges also admired The Box, Marc Levinson’s analysis of the unexpected success of the humble shipping container and how its invention opened up world commerce. Rachel Lomax, deputy governor of the Bank of England, described it as one of “the most substantial books we had to read”.

Far from being too narrow, the book provided a “new insight into how technology works inside an industry, standard-setting and entrepreneurship”, said John Gapper, the FT’s chief business commentator.

This year’s shortlist may lack an example of the really heavyweight investigative reporting that made DisneyWar, by James Stewart, one of the favourites for last year’s award and there is no thoroughgoing management book – a disappointment for those academics labouring to become the next Peter Drucker. But, as Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, put it, these are books full of “valuable insights” for the business audience.

For a podcast on the shortlist and excerpts from the five books, go to www.ft.com/bookaward

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.